The “strong and stable leadership” narrative wasn’t the problem

I’ve seen a few articles saying that the Tory campaign fail can be attributed to Crosby’s insistence on message discipline or M&C Saatchi-style ‘brutal simplicity’.

The argument runs: repeating “strong and stable leadership” was a dumb thing to do and the constant reiteration of that phrase got annoying.  They then contend that in a fragmented media landscape you need a multifaceted approach and suggest that a Crosby-style single-minded campaign is for a previous age.

I disagree.

Having a single, simple and compelling narrative is a fundamental aspect of a good election campaign.

What went wrong in the Conservative campaign was that Theresa May simply parroted the strapline, rather than telling the story.  May’s pitch was rigid, badly presented and done in turgid environments which bored the press pack travelling with her and everyone who had to read or watch the coverage.

The Conservative narrative that was very well-constructed in the build-up to the election was as follows: Theresa May will defy the vested interests to bring about change for those just about managing.

It’s that narrative that gave May her 20 point poll lead at the start of the campaign.

“Strong and stable leadership” was intended to be a mental shortcut for a Conservative Party that would stand up to the EU and negotiate a good deal for Britain; for an economy that delivered for ordinary people; for a party that understood the way lots of people felt about immigration; for a Prime Minister unafraid of taking on big corporations such as energy companies; for a leader who could defend the country against internal and external threats.

If you look at the messaging that the Conservatives were deploying on social media advertising – a selection below – you will see that is the story that Lynton Crosby and agency Edmonds Elder were trying to tell.

But Theresa May lacked the flexibility and craft to be able to tell these individual stories in interesting and motivating ways, using “strong and stable leadership” as a unifying theme, without sounding like a robot.

Given that earned media coverage – which at election time is largely generated by a party leader – is disproportionately important on the end result, this was a major barrier to success.

If you think about the successful Vote Leave campaign which took place last year, they had a brilliantly consistent message: take back control.  But the people and organisations that were delivering it did it with flare, passion and energy.

The problem wasn’t the message, it was the messenger.


  1. “Strong and stable leadership” was only a shortcut to “Strong and stable leadership”
    The rest of the campaign, sadly, was boring, offered no exciting vision, few if any positive reasons to vote conservative (other than “vote for us and get 5 years watery gruel”), and brought up issues that turned many people off, eg foxhunting. And that was before the dementia tax disaster and subsequent U turn.
    And this criticism is from a naturally Conservative voter.

  2. May couldn’t sell chilled beer in a desert. She thought she was a salesman, because the polls told her that she was doing do much better than her competition. Granted, Labour’s product was poor.

    But it was cannily and gently sold, by a master campaigner.

  3. May loves Islam. She has trumpeted that sharia law is beneficial for Britain. She loves getting hijabbed up to go and talk to the mullahs, but she never speaks to any real natives of this country, white Anglo-Saxons.

    She reads prepared statements approved by CCHQ. She reads them at us, not to us. She should have spoken to us, but she is incapable of connecting with us. We know she doesn’t want us to leave the EU. She could leave by stopping the money for Brussels, but she won’t because she is a remainer.

  4. The offers from the Conservatives were seen as all negative as all they had to offer were cuts whereas Labour offered free money and positive policies. Many of these will not work in the real world but since when has politics been about doing stuff that actually works and is evidence-based?.
    There are Government Departments to bury bad news from the many (most) policies that fail
    The public interpreted Conservative policies as negative.
    A tax on Dementia
    Underfunding for Schools
    Underfunding for the NHS

    In constrast, Labour offered free money
    each University entrant (or parents) given £27,000 to cover costs
    An Industrial Policy
    A Financial Policy
    A new deal for business
    Many voters will see these are positive policies in contrast with negative Conservative policies.

  5. I’m surprised that a political advertising site has missed the obvious. A single, simple, compelling message can indeed be very effective. Even if it eventually bores the pants off us it still sinks in and does its work. But the product being sold has to live up to to the narrative, or at least not obviously trash the narrative. When May did a U-turn on her manifesto she showed herself to be neither strong nor stable. She did a Ratner on her own brand and I believe this was far more damaging than any mistake made in the manifesto or any shortcomings she had as a campaigner.

  6. You’re right, her reaction to u-turn helped make the positioning untenable. I think another leader could have rebounded from the u-turn and maintained the narrative. She could have said “it takes great strength to admit when you’ve got something wrong”, but she didn’t.

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